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BBC Four Collections -
specially chosen programmes from the BBC Archive.
For this Collection,
Sir Michael Parkinson
has selected BBC interviews
with influential figures
of the 20th century.
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LUDOVIC: Dame Rebecca, Rebecca West is not your real name, is it?
No, my real, my born name,
was Cicely Isabel Fairfield,
which is a name quite impossible, unless you have blonde ringlets
and bright blue eyes. I had neither.
Now, I read that you wanted to become a writer from a very early age.
- Is that so? - Well, we all wrote in the family.
It was a sort of permanent condition.
my father was a writer.
He wrote on politics and he was a journalist.
And I had uncles and aunts and cousins.
It was something you did in the house, like embroidery or carpentry.
And you wrote this article in The Freewoman
about women's rights. What was that article about?
It was about Mrs Humphry Ward, who wanted women not to have the vote.
And, so, I gave...I gave her a good going-over, as one can, at 18.
I was brutal, contemptuous and altogether very disagreeable.
And... As you can be when you're 18.
I couldn't write anything so cruel now.
And, then, when you were 19 or 20, you reviewed, in The Freewoman,
- I think, a novel of HG Wells... - Yes.
- ..called Marriage. - Yes.
Now, what was your view of HG Wells at this time, before you met him?
Well, he wrote books.
And I thought that he pretended to be a feminist and really wasn't.
LUDOVIC: What sort of a man was HG Wells like, to be with?
Er...he was excellent fun, everybody will tell you that.
And he was also, to his friends,
there was an extraordinary thing that is not remembered about him,
that he was so kind to a lot of people.
He had on a string a whole lot of unsuccessful writers
and people who he'd been at school with
or had been at the Imperial College with.
He was awfully kind to a lot of people.
LUDOVIC: How do you rate him as a writer today?
Oh, some of his stuff is beautiful,
and I've often thought that his dialogue was so good,
that he would've made a very good playwright.
But somehow he never got down to that.
And, of course, all his stories,
really he brought the subject of science fiction on a hundred years,
by the short stories he wrote himself.
There were very, very few approaches to science fiction until HG wrote.
You have a few odd things like intimations
of strangers from other worlds in, say, Sheridan Le Fanu.
You get a sense of there being more than one ordinary...
er...kind of life.
And he peopled the science fiction scene with a dozen forms of spookery.
Well, now, of course, at this time,
you were writing yourself and you were meeting many other writers.
- And one of them was Shaw... - Yes.
..who wrote of you in 1916 to Mrs Patrick Campbell as follows...
"When I arrived here..." - here, I think, is Glastonbury -
"..I struck a precipitous flirtation with Rebecca West,
"an extremely clever young woman,
"whose critical writings have been startling everyone.
"Rebecca can handle a pen as brilliantly as ever I could
"and much more savagely.
"We fell into one another's arms, intellectually and artistically,
"and had I not turned 60 and been afraid of being ridiculous..."
Do you remember that?
Certainly I do remember it, very well.
And it's one of the funniest passages I know, in all of Shaw's writing,
because he was trying, the silly old buffoon,
to make Mrs Pat jealous.
What was that year...? It wasn't Glastonbury, it was Keswick.
Quite a difference.
No holy thorns on Keswick.
- But...what date was that? - Well, I have it as 1916.
Well, do you know, I'd known him since I was 17.
I'd been introduced to him, I think by Ford Madox Ford.
And I was much fonder of Mrs Shaw than I was of him.
And there was never the smallest sentimental attachment between us.
And he was simply making Mrs Patrick Campbell feel
that he'd had a wonderful walk-out with somebody young and charming.
It's no relation to reality.
I went many a long walk with him, over the fells,
with my sister, my older sister,
and a man who was a civil servant called Slattery.
And I don't think I ever was alone with him at Keswick.
And men are awful liars.
LUDOVIC: What did you feel about Shaw,
as a companion, as a man of letters?
He's a mythical figure to us. Was he a forbidding character?
Was he easy to talk to? What was he like?
Well, the question of being easy to talk to never arose.
He was talking steadily.
And very delightful it was.
LUDOVIC: And how do you reckon he stands now in English literature?
People like to, er, go and see his plays,
because I think he was, really - I think it's been pointed out before -
he really treated words as if they were notes in music.
And he wrote speeches that were like beautiful operatic arias.
And it's wonderful stuff to act. All actors love Shaw.
And you go there for a sort of performance.
But I don't think he had enough ideas
and I don't think they were good ones.
LUDOVIC: Of all the writers of that time,
and there were many considerable ones,
leaving aside HG Wells and Shaw,
who do you find, looking back, the most interesting?
Well, there was something very beautiful about Conrad.
Of course, Conrad had very funny sides to him.
HG always used to say that every two years,
he used to want to find out what it was
that the English saw in Jane Austen.
And he'd shut himself up in a room with the works of Jane Austen,
and then the family would hear noises
of breaking furniture inside the room,
and he'd burst out and say, "I can't understand it!"
And that was rather like him.
LUDOVIC: I don't suppose Jane Austen would have understood Conrad!
Oh, I think she would.
I think she had a... She expected the animal...
She expected the male animal to jump anyway.
But he couldn't understand it. But he was a sweet person.
I used to meet him with a man who wrote very good short stories,
now forgotten, called Cunninghame Graham.
And it was always very, very delightful.
But I must say that it always amused me that Conrad,
though I'm sure he was the most faithful and loving husband,
very kind to his wife,
he was very touched by a beautiful girl who came to England,
whose name, I think, was Jane Guggenheim, Jane Taylor.
She was the wife of Deems Taylor, the composer,
absolutely marvellous, with orange hair.
And he was distinctly, sort of rather ethereally, in love with her.
And so when his letters came out, I turned up the index
and I found an entry for her, so I thought,
"How is this marvellous stylist going to describe the woman that he loved?"
And I looked up, and he said, "An American woman came to lunch today.
REBECCA: And that was all he said about her.
LUDOVIC: Do you think that any writers of today
have the same kind of stature
as those of your contemporaries in the 1920s?
I think partly because they had... they had...
A writer had a much more comfortable life.
They hadn't been upset by so many wars.
And, then, when they got money,
they had comfortable houses, with servants.
And there wasn't the scurry and the running about
and the huge demands from the Inland Revenue.
And it was easier for people to write more books than they do now
and to keep up on a higher standard.
LUDOVIC: But would you say there was anybody writing today
you felt was of that standard?
No. I think there's more people whose whole work
forms a very interesting sort of corpus.
LUDOVIC: What about Solzhenitsyn?
Well, that's so tangled by political advocacy,
and, of course, to me,
a writer is someone that has to stand apart from politics.
You always have to know better than the men of action.
You always have to give the...
point of view that's not...complicated
by the fact that you have to bear responsibility.
Politicians have to bear responsibilities for actions
which depend on views of the moment,
of the moment when the action is called for.
Writers have to look at things from a more long-term point of view.
LUDOVIC: You wrote in 1944,
"A left-wing journalist is what I have been
- "since I was 18 years of age." - Yes.
Is that how you still consider yourself?
No, because I know more.
If I was... If I was...
If I hadn't learnt to...
slowly, to have a writer's point of view...
..I might still be on the level of party politics.
But I hope I'm not.
You've written more recently that to be a left-wing writer
is to be "in the mood" and you talk of
"the peculiar heresy to be told that a left-wing government
"is the most natural thing for England."
So it seems that you have changed.
I don't think that it's natural
for people to be left-wing,
for England to have a left-wing government,
because I remember the time when it was completely natural for England
to have just a Tory government or a Liberal government.
It was completely natural in those days.
It would've been profoundly unnatural to have had a Labour government,
because I don't know where you would have found the people
who were fit to carry it on.
LUDOVIC: In your youth, you were, as you've already told me,
a great fighter for women's rights,
- women's freedom. - Yes.
What do you think of women's lib today?
Well, there's so many different sorts.
There's so many different sorts of women's lib.
I would think, on the whole, it was a thoroughly sane movement.
I can't think of...
Some women's lib writers strike me as, um...
asking too much of fate.
For example, many of them write as if it was a woman's right
to live with a man they weren't married to.
But that's not wholly irrelevant.
There may all sorts of women who need to be liberated
from all sorts of forms of sex oppression,
who are not attractive and who would not get male lovers or husbands
and who might be lesbians or might be unattractive to women.
I think it's too highly charged with the idea of sexual liberation.
LUDOVIC: But do you feel that men and women should be,
from a social point of view,
really completely equal? I mean, as regards pay,
as regards who pays the bills and all that kind of thing?
Well, I mean, my own experience was limited by the fact
that if I hadn't paid the bills,
if you mean write them and manage some expenditure,
my husband would've left them in various pockets,
and they wouldn't have been dealt with.
And his household, domestic ability...
- his ability to run a household... - I thought he was a banker?
Oh! That's an interesting thing. He was a banker.
He went in and banked as merrily as the next banker,
for quite a number of years.
But what he should've been was an art historian.
That's what he really was best at.
- And, um... - I only mentioned that
because you said that he wasn't very good
as far as the household bills were concerned,
which is surprising to find in a man who was a banker.
Oh, no, I don't think so. They're a scatty lot.
Very scatty lot.
I've known lots of them, and most of them are very scatty.
And don't think about the household bills as...
It's not really the same as floating an issue and all that carry-on.
LUDOVIC: One of the...of the many books you've written,
one of the most famous, I suppose,
and for which you're most widely known, is The Meaning Of Treason
and The New Meaning Of Treason.
Why were you particularly interested in that?
Was that as a result of the Nuremberg Trials, or what?
No, it began before the Nuremberg Trials, I think.
It was that I had used to...
work on the farm during the war
and then I used to come in and have one glass of gin and tonic water
and turn on the wireless to hear James Joy...er, William Joyce.
James Joyce would have been quite different!
- William Joyce. - Lord Haw-Haw.
Yes, Lord Haw-Haw.
And, then, when he was brought up for trial,
The New Yorker asked me to do the trial
and to do Amery's, and I got fascinated by the subject.
Now I can hardly bear to hear of spies,
because I've just had too many of them,
and, of course, it's changed.
There used to be the odd cock-eyed idealist,
and most of their suppositions were, as it happened, wrong.
But now...the spies who are employed
are mostly professionals who might have robbed banks or anything else.
They're the people who really get hold of the stuff and sell it.
And it's not interesting any more to me, to my mind.
LUDOVIC: Well, now, coming up to the present, are you still...?
You write columns, I know, but are you still writing books?
Well, I'm trying to finish a book.
I've had a great deal of difficulty with my eyes,
because I've got double cataract.
And I've had various illnesses.
And my work has been interrupted.
But I'm two-thirds through a novel.
LUDOVIC: How do you write? With a typewriter or in longhand?
No, it's maddening. I can't see a typewriter any longer.
I write just with a, um... I write with a big book
and my writing pad supported on the big book.
And I get along all right.
LUDOVIC: And are you able still to read quite a lot?
Oh, yes. I can read. If I have the book here
and my close, near spectacles,
I can read. I can read much more slowly than I did,
but I do read it.
Nobody has caught me out yet, reviewing a book that I haven't read.
LUDOVIC: What do you read mostly?
What do I read? Well, I read a great deal of poetry.
And I read a certain amount of modern fiction
but with growing despair,
though I like some modern writers very much.
I like that Polish woman who writes about India,
with the unpronounceable name.
Mrs Prawala...isn't it? Or something like that.
- That's a very good writer. - Do you ever watch television?
Quite... Very often.
I asked you that because you've had a swipe at television interviewers,
Dame Rebecca, as you have at many...
You look surprised, so let me just remind you what you said.
In an interview in the Sunday Telegraph a few years ago,
you spoke of television interviewers,
"putting some minister involved in a crisis through his paces.
"A man who has never borne responsibility
"is giving hell to a man who is bearing responsibility
"of a specially onerous sort".
Now, those aren't exactly the views of a radical writer, are they?
- More, perhaps, of a Colonel Blimp. - No, certainly not!
Why would that...? Now, this is absurd,
because this would apply
to any Prime Minister and any Minister for Employment.
LUDOVIC: But no politician has to appear on television
if he doesn't want to.
What chance have they? What chance would they have with their own party,
if they didn't have television...
make television appearances?
- It's practically compulsory. - Looking back on your life,
what is the book, or what are the things you've written,
that you would most like to last?
I don't care much about which book.
My best work, some of my best work, has been done purely ephemerally.
I mean, in newspapers, in reviews, because of various circumstances.
My husband was ill for a very great...for a number of years,
during which I really couldn't undertake any long, long work.
And I think that if you...
if you want to read what Europe was like before the Second World War,
the Balkans was like, I think Black Lamb And Grey Falcon
is quite a useful book.
I also think I wrote a very good life when there was no other in English,
oddly, you will be surprised to hear, of St Augustine,
which I think is really quite a good book.
..I like one or two of my novels.
But as for lasting, I don't know if the universe is going to last,
- so what of it? - Dame Rebecca, thank you very much.